In last night’s dream, I am preparing for some kind of formal dance. I am in the cubicle of a public bathroom, changing into my dress and trying to fix my hair and makeup (…in a 3 x 3 space with no comb, no brush, no mirror…but trying). There is a gaggle of unfamiliar young girls outside, congregating around the sinks. I see their pointy shoes under my door, smell their fruity perfumes and hairsprays, hear their voices through gaps between the cubicle walls. Then one of the girls stands next to my door and speaks directly to me. “We’re making bets,” she says. “We bet you don’t dance with anyone tonight.”
I let out a snort. I am not injured by their juvenile bet and I answer the voice with all the confidence a half-dressed lady in a bathroom cubicle can muster, “That’s where you’re wrong, missy,” I say. “I’m married! I have a built-in dance partner. Besides, I’m a grown woman with four children. What do I care?” The girls are not impressed. They laugh and begin to speak a foreign language—a foreign body language—tossing slinky skirt hems and turning slender ankles and walking out, leaving a cloud of scent and a running sink tap behind them.
I finish dressing and step out into the bathroom. I turn off the water. I look up at the mirror and see myself for the first time in my dream. I am a grown woman with four children. And I have the spotted skin, the forehead creases, and the thick neck to go with it. I am old. I am old. When did I get so old?
I am fairly experienced in armchair self-analysis. I can piece together the various recent events that have influenced my dream, the most important being yesterday's attempts to dress up and photograph myself for a “head shot” requested of me by a journal about to publish one of my essays. The interim results (as seen on the tiny LCD on the back of my camera) looked flattering. The final results (as seen for real on my computer screen) were disappointing and embarrassing. I look desperate, like a post-80s Farrah Fawcett. The truth is dawning on me: after years of looking younger than my age, the pendulum has begun to swing the other way.
Many painters prior to about the 19th century tended to polarize women into two (and only two) categories: young and old. And by young I mean impossibly beautiful, virginal goddesses. By old I mean shriveled nursemaids with one gnarled foot in the grave. There’s no room in between for pleasant, middle-aged maternal types in support hose. There’s no room for mature-but-not-ancient, for wise-but-not-wizened.
Take Caravaggio’s painting of Judith and Holofernes for example.
His Judith (who in the Apocryphal story is an intelligent, resourceful widow) looks about 16 to me. The only creases on her forehead come from her childish expression of squeamishness. She is right in the middle of slicing off the head of an Assyrian general, but to Caravaggio, she is more like a timid teenager, recoiling from the surprising sloppiness of her first kiss.
Judith’s maidservant Abra, on the other hand, is an old hag. She is withered and stooped. Her face has a complex topography. She hangs over Judith’s shoulder like a shrunken apple witch-head. She waits with her apron open to catch the head when Judith finishes her slice. But for some reason, Abra does not help in the process (unlike the Gentileschi version of the same scene I saw in Phoenix last summer). Does Caravaggio think she’s too old and weak? She looks to me as if she has a lifetime of experience behind her, a lifetime of gory unpleasant experiences to have toughened her up: the blood of a thousand cycles, the de-boning of chickens, the childbirths and the cutting of cords, the washing and wrapping of bodies for burial (her parents and maybe a few of her own children). What does Judith know of these things? Nothing. She has only her beauty and naive bravery to commend her. But this is enough for Caravaggio to cast her in the role. So we are not the first generation to lament that all the good parts go to the young actresses.
I am vain. I like being older but I don’t like looking older. Last night's dream is just another of many portents: the failing memory, the wrinkles, the chipped teeth (the teeth! why did no one warn me that my teeth would be the first to show my age?). I can tell the 40s are going to be hard on me. It’s a good thing I have one more year to get used to the idea.